One year ago today, Detroit artist Sheefy was arrested by local police while painting a mural for the City of Detroit’s City Walls project, which is administered by 1xRUN. City Walls is a multi-faceted civic program that helps combat vandalism and refurbish old storefronts with city-sanctioned artwork. At the time, Sheefy was one of several participating artists installing murals in Detroit’s varied neighborhoods. Taken for a vandal, officers handcuffed the artist and took him to jail, where he spent 24 hours until his release.
It so happened that Sheefy’s arrest took place on June 19, 2019, or Juneteenth, which commemorates the 1865 arrival of Union troops upon Galveston, Texas, the last of the states to receive federal orders that all previously enslaved people were now free. The irony is not lost on Sheefy, also known as Tashif Turner, who considers himself an oxymoron: “[I’m] painting for the city and getting arrested for it by the city; living in a Black city and not being able to be a Black artist.”
Since then, Sheefy has built an extraordinary following of international fine art collectors. On 1xRUN alone, he’s sold 120+ original works of art and seven distinct print editions across 11 solo collections. Between 1xRUN’s City Walls, Murals In The Market, and Quicken Loans Small Business Mural Project, Sheefy has also installed dozens more murals throughout the city of Detroit. He is undoubtedly one of the most highly sought-after artists in the fine art community.
We sat with Sheefy to reflect on Juneteenth and the symbolism it carries for himself, his artwork, and the Black community, 155 years on.
1x:RUN: Tell us about the mural you were creating for City Walls and the events leading up to your arrest. What was going through your mind at the time? How did it leave you feeling afterwards?
Sheefy: It was the first one I started. A crazy big wall, a whole block. I was really focusing on something the neighborhood would enjoy. 7 Mile, Cartier County––stuff that the inner city can really feel in touch with. In the midst of finishing the second side, under the viaduct, that’s when it started. The cops thought I was doing graffiti.
I called Zak Meers (wall manager for the City Walls project), but they thought I was calling my Mom or lying, or something. I couldn’t win. Seven cop cars, I’m in cuffs, you feel me? I actually had a city official there, but they still wanted to take me in for an old ticket from 11 years ago. It was like, “We’re gonna take you to jail because we can.”
I had so many emotions running through me. I had never been to jail. I always avoided jail. And to go to jail doing something for the city? I was just an oxymoron sitting in that cell. I was thinking about it the whole time. It felt so wrong, but I knew I was doing right.
I used my voice to speak up. I knew the editors at Metro Times and Free Press. I told my Mom first. She posted it on Facebook, she just went off, and I sent her status to all the editors. It went from local to national to global in a weekend. You don’t know how powerful your voice is. It was crazy.
1x: You were confronted by police of the very same municipality that commissioned you to paint the mural in the first place. What message did that send to you as an artist?
Sheefy: It shows that they judge me by how I look. The cops weren’t really thinking about what was happening. They tried to play the “good cop, bad cop” thing, like they were my friends even though I’m going to jail.
I saw cops the whole week while I was painting. It wasn’t like I had just started; I was there and I had been painting the whole block. I tried to explain it to them, that this ain’t no graffiti. It shows that street art is different in Detroit. The cops can’t even tell the difference between street art and graffiti. If we’ve got a graffiti task force that don’t know the difference, they’re going to judge it by who they think does graffiti: a Black person. But if you think of a lot of the graffiti writers in Detroit, they’re mostly white. We don’t have a lot of Black writers here.
I’m just happy to be away from it. It fucked me up. I took a few weeks to breathe, then I got back to painting. With all the opportunities that came with me speaking my truth, I just really pushed my artwork and went tunnel vision on it. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as an artist since then. Not only in skill, but what I’m putting in my artwork. The messages, the intensity, the fun––I wrap up all those things in one piece.
1x: The incident took place on Juneteenth. The irony of a Black man’s arrest taking place on a day that celebrates his freedom is baffling –– what is your takeaway from that?
Sheefy: I didn’t realize it until like a month later, when someone pointed it out to me on Twitter. I was like, damn. It just added to the oxymoron: painting for the city and getting arrested for it by the city; living in a Black city and not being able to be a Black artist.
Now a year later, I want to do something special with it. Since my last release, I wasn’t even thinking about the connection to Juneteenth. But it felt right. It’s something organic, and I think it’s pushing me to see my art as bigger than just being pretty. It can be for my city and my people, too. All I gotta do is be able to open up and let loose.
1x: In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, Juneteenth feels as important to recognize now as ever. How do you celebrate Juneteenth, and how do you think Juneteenth should be observed?
Sheefy: I feel like as long as Black people celebrate it, we ain’t gotta worry about none of that. It’s going to come to us. It takes the people to appreciate it, rather than a government that don’t give a fuck about us. We just gotta see it as our day.
We’ve got to embrace our freedom and embrace each other. We’re seeing men getting killed every day, Black men and women being shot by the police still. It’s a never-ending fight. We need to show that we know that we were free, but we’re still not free. We have to keep that state of mind and connect with our communities. That’s what art can do.
1x: How do you use your art as a form of protest?
Sheefy: I’m not out on the streets protesting; I’m in my studio working, but I still want to be able to help. I’ve been having these feelings like I want to do something, and that’s how I got inspired to do the Pro Black series. I feel like I’m always drawing Black people to begin with. My subconscious sees figures with thick lips, big noses, curls––that’s what I’m drawing all the time. I’m always Pro Black. Me being Black and successful is Pro Black.
I hit up Pietro, and I was like, man, there’s so much on my head. I really want to find a good way to vent. I want to give back somehow. That’s when he got back to me about this Black Lives Matter series.
Even this Untitled painting––I wasn’t planning on having it in the series; it was just me venting. I couldn’t work on commissions or nothing for a week. Then I painted that in three days. I was just trying to get something out of me. It’s how I feel, it’s got a message to it, and I want people to have it. Plus, it’s money for me to give away to the cause.
I know my name and how far my voice goes, so I try to take a positive approach to the media buzz. Instead of, “I got fucked with by the police”, it’s, “I’m a great artist and this art is for the world.”
1x: The city of Detroit has a complicated relationship with street art: it cracks down on graffiti, but at the same time it supports public art projects.
Sheefy: I travel a lot so I can learn from other cities. They connect public art with graffiti in a good way. When you think of graffiti in Detroit, you think of 7 Mile Bloods or something like that. The people in office don’t see street art as beauty. If you’ve got Rock Financial bringing in Kaws, Futura, and Shepard Fairey… it’s like, the world knows that’s cool, but the city of Detroit don’t even know who these artists are. It’s still going over their heads. But when you’ve got artists like me, or Sydney James, or Tiff Massey putting a lot of work around the city and making a global stamp, it makes it better for the youth. They can see representations of themselves, and that will make Detroit stronger.
I believe creativity is our greatest export. Motown, techno, Dilla, Tryee Guyton on up. We’ve got so much creativity but we haven’t really propelled our city. There are a lot of things that blow up, and then just leave here. We can take that initiative going forward. We need more institutions like 1xRUN that are willing to listen to artists, instead of use them when it’s convenient. We have to build organic art. We’re not doing it just be seen, we’re doing it because we love Detroit.
1x: Much work still needs to be done in order to reform the criminal justice system that has worked against Black communities for decades –– what are some changes that you would like to see?
Sheefy: That’s such a big question. There’s so much that needs to be done. It ain’t going to be done in a year. We gotta buckle up.
160 years ago, my great grandfather was a slave. 60 years ago, my grandma was getting spit on trying to go to school. We just got civil rights. Now, decades later, we’re getting murdered in the street. It’s really not better than how it was 100 years ago; it’s just a whole different game. They got people in prison right now basically doing slave work. We got viruses killing mainly Black people. There’s a lot of shit that’s hitting us in waves, but we’ve got to just keep up the fight, and do everything we can to speak our truth.
If we can’t get the education we deserve, we have to learn how to teach our own. We’ve got kids in Detroit fighting for their right to learn how to read. What type of shit is that? Detroit Public Schools is crumbling. They’re destroying us at all different levels. They’re not even giving us a fighting chance.
We have to see Black Lives Matter past it just being profitable. It looks like a lot of folks are just going to support this for two months. But what about the next five, ten years? We’ve got to keep our eye on the prize. It’s got to be better than just us protesting. You’ve got to be able to put some money up. We have to be able to put up our own buildings and teach our own children. Our best bet is to get our own and to protect our own.